In Leadership Character Trumps Competence

By Jeb Blount, Author of People Follow You: The Real Secret to What Matters Most in Leadership

We live in a society that thrives on 15-minutes-of-fame thrill rides. Reality shows like The Apprentice, where Donald Trump baits and then summarily fires contestants, dominate TV ratings. These shows frequently glorify the bad behavior that seems to be slowly, but surely, seeping into our society. The 24-hour news cycle is an endless stream of stories about leaders who have been caught doing bad things. In the midst of this barrage it is easy to lose faith that leaders can actually do good and serve others; that men and women of character still exist. 

In his book Derailed, Tim Irwin admonishes that lesson #1 for leaders is “character trumps competence.” Should you be the best you can be, as smart as you can be, set high goals, invest in your skills, learn, set a vision for your organization, develop strategy, hold people accountable, and build process and systems? Of course you should. All of this and more is important to reaching your potential as a leader. But competence in these areas will only take you so far. According to Irwin, “. . . the glaring truth is that a leader is only as good as the character of the leader. While competence is absolutely essential, our character ultimately makes a greater impact on what we accomplish in our work and in our lives.”

Poor leaders are quite often extremely competent and accomplished people—educated, talented, disciplined, and yet arrogantly self-centered, falsely believing that because they are so talented people and organizations simply cannot function without them. In their arrogance they soon develop a sense of entitlement that generally results in treating those around them like expendable commodities.

Irwin points out that humility is at the “epicenter” of leadership effectiveness. Humility is the mother of openness, listening, authenticity, likeability, kindness, and wisdom. Humility is a direct reflection of your character and discipline as a leader because, unlike the talents you were born with, humility is a trait you must internalize and work at daily. Why? You are not normal—you are a high-achiever. You were promoted into a leadership position because you are talented, smart, goal-oriented, ambitious, and driven to achieve. You hold yourself to a higher standard than normal people. You are willing to work harder and longer hours and willing to do anything it takes to climb to the top of the ladder. From where you sit it is easy to look down at all of the normal people who do not have your talent and are unwilling to make the same sacrifices as you, and see them as inferior. It is easy to say to yourself, “I’ve worked harder than all of these other people so I deserve special privileges and perks. Why shouldn’t I go first!”

Although it may be natural to feel this way, leaders with character have the discipline to fight this insidious arrogance and put aside their self-centered need to feel important in order to better serve their people. They operate with a first-will-be-last belief system. For leaders, character begins and ends with humility. Character is an essential ingredient of servant leadership. Leaders who put their people first consistently demonstrate character traits that include:

  • Being likeable
  • Flexing their style to improve communication and connect with their people
  • Being polite and respectful
  • Acting with kindness—living by the Golden Rule
  • Investing in themselves
  • Being passionate and enthusiastic about helping their people win

 

Jeb Blount Leadership Expert - Speaker - Author

Jeb Blount

Jeb Blount is a leading expert on leadership and human behavior in the workplace. He helps companies, teams, and individuals transform their organizations and accelerate performance through intense focus on interpersonal relationships.  He is the author of five books including People Follow You: The Real Secret to what Matters Most in Leadership, People Buy You: The Real Secret to what Matters Most in Business, Sales Guy’s 7 Rules for Outselling the Recession, Business Expert’s Guide to Small Business Success and Power Principles.  To learn more call 706-664-0810 x102 or email carrie.martinez@peoplefollowyou.com.

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